Following their critically acclaimed new album, Sleep Well Beast, The National have been touted as being on the brink of greatness. The truth is, they’ve been on that brink for the best part of a decade. This show they proved how that suits them best as they play the first of two sold-out shows at Manchester’s O2 Apollo.
The production of Sleep Well Beast is denser and more textured than any of the band’s previous offerings and witnessing the musicianship of it played live, paired with the introspectiveness of frontman Matt Berninger, makes watching The National a unique experience.
The crowd make more noise ‘standing by’ for the band than they do during the brilliant opener 'Nobody Else Will Be Here'. Berninger stalks the stage as the band make their way through four tracks from the new album to open the set. Lead single 'The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness' has the crowd shouting the chorus but a normal level of hush is resumed for 'Walk It Back' and 'Guilty Party'.
There’s an angst to Berninger’s performance as the band move through tracks like 'Turtleneck' and 'Mr. November'. In these moments of high energy, he strains his vocals screaming into the microphone; storms around the stage; launches objects into the rafters of the Apollo and throws himself into the front part of the crowd.
However, whenever the performance is reaching boiling point, The National have a knack for reining things in. Nuanced tracks like 'Slow Show', 'Carin At the Liquor Store' and fan favourite 'I Need My Girl' have the crowd quietly singing along to the lyrics. There’s an ambiguity to a lot of Berninger’s murmured words, making them personally relatable for those in attendance tonight. The juxtaposition between the enjoyment the crowd gets from lyrics of such sorrow and desperation is remarkable.
There are moments of pure elation too. During 'Bloodbuzz Ohio', 'Apartment Story' and 'Fake Empire', the band abandon the restraints they put on much of their instrumentation and play at full throttle, trumpets and all. During these tracks, the crowd are at full volume too, throwing away any inhibitions they may have had about being indiscreet and respectable.
Ending on 'Terrible Lov'e, smiles are plastered across faces and groups of friends embrace in absolute delight. There’s an enormous reception as the concluding line of “it takes an ocean not to break” is repeated for the last time and the song escalates into a rousing finish - it will be embedded in the heads of those there for weeks to come.
In an interview with NME at Glastonbury, there was flirtation with the idea that the band are future headliners. After tonight’s performance, they’ve proved that they could be, but please don't that ever let you change The National.